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The other battlefield
By JEREMY RUDEN
23/12/2012
I am fearful that if the right people don’t start understanding that the media battleground is just as important as the military one, we might end up losing the war completely.
 
When I started writing this column over two years ago, I was annoyed.

Annoyed over what some might perceive as a minor incident. At the opening meeting of the UN General Assembly, Defense Minister Ehud Barak had decided it would be fine for his wife to sit with him and the rest of the Israeli delegation during the proceedings.

This is a breach of protocol as only officials are allowed to sit on the floor while all guests are required to be in the mezzanine. The local press made a stink over the fact that while Michelle Obama and other wives of world leaders followed the rules, Barak apparently felt that there would be no repercussions if his spouse sat with the rest of the delegation.

While this might sound inconsequential, I argued that this incident, and others like it, are symptoms of a larger problem: the indifference to or lack of understanding of our country’s image on the part of many of our representatives.

Ever since, I have devoted most of my words to the problems and potential solutions regarding improving Israel’s international standing. The key, or course, is media relations or lack thereof, and it is clear to me that this issue is at the very core to our problems.

In Israel, most of us unfortunately know quite a bit about war. Since day one we have fought for our existence as armies from neighboring countries have threatened to obliterate us time and again. The Jewish state, formed out of the ashes of the Holocaust and centuries of anti-Semitism, is the living testament to the saying “never again.”

Up until the 1980s, courage and military strength were the sole keys to keeping this country alive. However, as it became clear that defeating Israel on the battlefield was next to impossible, our enemies understood that new tactics were called for. In the first intifada it became evident that words and pictures could be just as powerful and important as guns and bullets.

Images, the spin on those images as well as half-truths and outright lies whittled away at the justification for Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza.

A lot of time, effort and resources are being put into spreading anti-Israel hatred. It worked, and it’s still working.

Even now, 25 years later, Israel has not been able to fully internalize the fact that despite being stronger in military terms, we are being completely outmaneuvered on this battlefield.

Up to this point, we have lost the media/public opinion/ hearts-and-minds battle and are now in a position from which it is very unlikely we can change the tide.

Part of the reason has to do with our history. For most of our existence, Israel was way behind in media development. TV only started here in 1968, and even that was only a few hours a day. Only in the mid-’80s were there any glimpses of any electronic media not government funded and controlled. Communications and media studies were not even recognized by the Council for Higher Education as a legitimate major for a bachelor’s degree when I went to college. I had to combine that with business management to get my degree in the 1990s.

Our leaders didn’t grow up with the visual medium and I am sure that they don’t understand its power, which has now been amplified thanks to the Internet.

In the West, images have turned the tide of wars, brought down governments and even started revolutions.

In Israel, where the media needs government cooperation to continue to operate, it is almost toothless, and woe to any operation which might anger the wrong people in Jerusalem. Just look at Channel 10.

While other businesses owe the government billions of shekels in taxes, it is a media outlet which owes a fraction of that sum that has been under threat of closure for months on end.

So if the local media is barely a priority, that goes double for the international press. Israel is the media hub for the Middle East because we are a democracy and there is freedom of movement here, for the most part. Everyone is here, from ABC to ZDF, and yet so few official resources are devoted to helping them get a complete and comprehensive picture of what’s going on in our little country. This has cost us time and again.

While the government and the army still haven’t understood what needs to be done on the media front, others have. The rise of organizations such as BICOM (British Israel Communications & Research Center) and the Israel Project came out of necessity.

Their efforts are to be applauded, but they are also a testament to just how bad the situation is. It’s so bad, it’s absurd.

Can anyone even imagine citizens from a Western country putting together a non-profit organization designed solely to explain their government’s policies and actions to members of the press? The private sector and individuals understand that the media war is being lost. Just look at the huge reaction during the last operation in Gaza.

Israelis took to the Internet to upload clips and try to show our side of the story. One of the best efforts came out IDC Herzliya where students came up with a Facebook group entitled “Israel Under Fire,” all the while streaming facts and figures about the conflict to tens of thousands of people. It’s a good thing we didn’t start Operation Pillar of Defense during spring break.

To make matters worse, hypocrisy and lies are being spread by our enemies. They do it because they can.

There’s no official challenge to someone who claims Israel carries out ethnic cleansing. No perspective is given when someone complains about Israel’s human rights violations, where in any Arab country, there rights would be completely squashed.

Another telltale sign of the indifference Israeli officials have toward the international press can be seen in the ongoing election campaign. While millions of shekels are being pumped into efforts to sway Israeli voters, I know for a fact that quite a few of the key parties will not have even one person dedicated to working with the dozens of international press representatives who’ll be covering the story. To me that is mind-boggling.

For professional reasons, I have decided that this will be my last column, but here I am, over two years later, and I am more than annoyed – I’m angry. Angry that our situation has gotten worse instead of better. Angry that too many people higher up don’t comprehend how inaction with the international media is detrimental to the future of our country. Most importantly, I am fearful that if the right people don’t start understanding that the media battleground is just as important as the military one, we might end up losing the war completely.

The writer is an independent media consultant
Jeremy@jeremyruden.com
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